Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Life as a Fake

It has been one of those months. The purple petals are fading on the jacaranda trees, which means summer is officially here, and I can’t read without growing restless. I have a rigid schedule these days: up at five to work on my novel, an hour break around eleven, and then to work editing until six. When I’m done, I eat dinner, and then reach for something to read. But nothing is working. Half a dozen books are sitting half-read (or less, or more) on my nightstand. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The Elegance of the Hedgehog. An Illuminated Life. Main Street. The Easter Parade. The Golden Notebook (just two chapters to go, and somehow I can’t do it). I open each book, read a paragraph or two, and then flip on my computer to watch an episode of Barney Miller on Hulu before going to bed, just so I can get up and start all over again.

I missed being devoured whole by a book, and so on Saturday I decided to walk to the new Goodwill on Beverly and buy a book that would consume me. I put my trust in serendipity. I walked in, got distracted by the racks of jeans, and wasted time searching for old Levi’s for a while before making my way to the bookshelf. I scanned the volumes. Lovely Bones came as no surprise. When does it not show up in a thrift shop? Imagining Argentina did. What a powerful story. But I had already read it. I was distracted for a moment by the realization that Goodwill’s are where Reader’s Digest condensed books go to die.

Then I found, side by side, two editions of Peter Carey’s My Life as a Fake. A British version and an American version. I know of his books. I have always been meaning to read him, though I assumed it would be something more obvious, like Oscar and Lucinda or True History of the Kelly Gang. But these paired paperbacks seemed like a sign, especially since the book was about literary folly and Asia, two of my favorite subjects. I liked the cover of the British version better, but I didn’t like its paper and typeface. The American version had a slight tear in its back cover, but the paper felt nicer, and the type was bigger. I chose the American version.

Back outside, I walked to the post office, and to the library to return three of the partially read books. From there I headed up First toward Starbucks to get an iced green tea. I opened My Life as a Fake and read the first paragraph. I read the second. I read the third. Reading and walking in the dead heat of midday, passing in and out of the shade of the magnolia trees. It was one of those bluest of blue days when shadows feel like pools of cool water. I was beyond the noise of the main streets. I could hear the breeze in the palms high above as words like “territorial enthusiasm” drifted from the page.

It was the kind of book that leapt right in. Just what I needed. I read on until I hit Starbucks, and held my place with my thumb as I ordered my iced tea. The barista asked me what I was up to that day.

“Walking and reading,” I told him.

He considered this and seemed confused. He said, “Good thing you’re doing it in this neighborhood. You couldn’t do that in just any neighborhood in L.A.”

This was true, for more than one reason. I most likely wouldn’t get mugged here (although I have been mugged in a better neighborhood than this one), and the sidewalks were relatively smooth. Very little tripping as I read and walked. Past the New Beverly Cinema. Past the medieval crenellations of Lloyd Klein Couture, with its turtle pond out front. I marked my place again to take a moment to watch the turtles, necks arched, little pointed faces arched toward the sun. As I read about a prank involving a poet called Bruno Hat, I overheard two homeless men in a bus shelter discussing whether or not Michael Jackson had been abused as a child. I walked home, book in hand, took out the dog, book in hand, and then perched on the arm of my sofa, book in hand, still reading.

As I blow dried my hair, I wandered through Kampong Baru market. As I ate dinner, I listened to a man named Christopher Chubb try to convince the editor of a literary journal of the authenticity of a particular poem. I like hiding away from the world and reading for hours. I also like living while a book is living. Not just to be absorbed by it, but to live with it, as it lives, as I did as a child, cleaning my room with Little Women propped open, dirty socks and Jo’s dreams of being a great writer and chaotic school papers and Beth’s dying all one. As evening came, I was only a third of the way through My Life as a Fake, but I had plenty more to do before bedtime. I would water my plants, I would dust, and I would take the dog for another walk. Reading all the while.